Classic monster movies have reached that level of cultural infiltration that generations of people know all the tropes without ever having actually seen a single original movie. In a way, parodies and rip offs of these movies and characters are just as relevant now as the originals. This can make it hard to watch, when what was once new and exciting has lost all its surprise due to the homages, piss takes and references. But while the shocks may not be all that shocking, and the flare now nothing more than cliché, seeing where it all started still holds a certain charm. Which is why it’s still entertaining when I watch something like 1931’s Frankenstein.
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is getting ready to marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The only problem is, he’s a little preoccupied by trying to bring the dead back to life with his assistant Fritz (Dwight Fry). He’s done animal experiments and moved on to knocking off various body parts from various places to flick the switch on a human version.
Flick the switch he does, and Frankenstein’s monster is born. 7 feet of shoddily sewn together man meat, controlled by a dead criminal’s brain. Friends, family and colleagues all object, and all are ignored while Henry lets his monster learn and develop in his lab. Until he breaks out on Henry’s wedding day and everything unravels quicker than the stitches on the monster’s forehead.
Colin Clive’s Dr Frankenstein is all unchecked ego. At one stage he even brags about how it feels to have the power of God. Almost every single character warns him against his experiments almost every single minute of the movie, but he’s so impressed with his own genius, he never even really hears their protests, let alone considers them. Until it’s too late… Of course.
As the monster, Boris Karloff the actor is almost as iconic as the character he plays. It’s a testament to his performance that his version of Frankenstein’s monster is still the go to look, sound, and movement basis for pretty much any incarnation since. Sure, people attempt to reinvent it every few years, but Karloff’s is still the one that’s first to mind for most people, whether they’ve heard his name before or not.
Of all the classic monsters, Frankenstein’s really is the best suited to the film making technology available in the 30s. There’s no transformation from man to wolf, or man to bat. No flying, no super natural powers. Sure, he’s hideous, but it’s all through a massive exaggeration and ugliness of basically human features. No fangs, fur or non-humanoid weirdness. Which all goes to make this version of Frankenstein’s monster as terrifying as any newer version I’ve seen (which admittedly, is very few).
I love it when a classic, or an icon, or just something with real cultural impact holds up long after it’s initial shock value has diminished. The movie Frankenstein and the character of Frankenstein’s monster as played by Boris Karloff are perfect examples. And it lead to one of Mel Brooks’ best movies. So it has that going for it too.